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A Scientific Soft Spot for Newton's Apple


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Scientists, apparently, are just as sentimental as the rest of us.

Tufts University announced this week that cosmologist Alex Vilenkin hopes to plant an apple tree this Fall whose lineage goes back to the English farm where Sir Isaac Newton lived in the 1600s — Woolsthorpe Manor.

This isn't Vilenkin's first tribute to the fabled event that inspired Newton's theory of gravitation. According to Tufts, the professor drops an apple onto the heads of his graduating PhD students every year.

Not that the Tufts tree will provide fruit for that ceremony any time soon. The cuttings — which came from a tree planted at MIT — have only just been grafted onto a rootstock in a local orchard .

I must admit, though I wrote a book about apples a few years ago, I'd never heard of this scientific soft spot for Newton's apple tree. It turns out there are august research institutes all over the world boasting trees thought to be descended from Isaac's own.

There's one at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Newton was elected a Fellow in 1669. Maybe that's no surprise.

But in 1957, the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) planted one at its Washington DC headquarters, then planted a second one when it moved to Maryland. The University of Nebraska has a Newton tree, as does the University of Wisconsin. They even tried to get grafts going at the astronomy and astrophysics center in Pune, India . And on and on and on.

OK, it's time to start keeping a list. Anybody know of other putative progeny of Newton's tree? I'd love to hear.

Just don't get confused: The English cooking apple, "Newton Wonder" has nothing to do with Sir Isaac's. His was a "Flower of Kent," which despite its name is thought to have originated in France.

And by all accounts Newton's apple did much more for the world by falling to the ground in front of young Isaac than it ever did in a pie. The Flower of Kent's fruit is said to be mealy and flavorless.



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